Women on board: The prolonging case of gender equality in India

Annapurani V Chennai | Updated on March 06, 2020

150 of the top 1,000 listed companies don’t have a woman independent director on their boards yet.

Be it in leadership roles, on the boards of companies or in the labour force, women’s representation in India is dismal despite their increasing literacy rate

Another Women’s Day is in the offing, yet gender equality continues to be an issue. It is going to be almost a year since the Kotak Committee’s recommendation to have at least one woman independent director on the boards of the top 500 companies based on market capitalisation came into place.

Yet, as on February 26, according to data from market tracker, 44 companies are yet to fulfil the condition, of which 34 are Nifty 500 companies. The top 1,000 listed companies – by market capitalisation – for which the deadline looms over (April 1, 2020), don’t paint a better picture either; 150 of them don’t have a woman independent director on their boards yet. And this lag is spread across sectors ranging from banking/term lending to mining, mineral and metals.

This could be because of the fact that the pool of available talent is still limited, says Shalini Warrier, Executive director, Federal Bank.

At an entry level, most companies have a very good gender diversity percentage, but higher up the ladder, it is skewed in favour of men. Coincidentally, according to data from the Global Gender Gap Report 2020 by the World Economic Forum, only 8.9 per cent of firms in India have female managers. Even among companies with female majority ownership, only 2.8 per cent firms are in India.

“It is not possible for a company to pick up any woman from the organisation and put her on the board,” says Aparna Jaswal, Additional Director - Cardiology and Electrophysiology, at Fortis Escorts Heart Institute & Research Centre.

Women first have to elevate themselves to reach that level. They have to rise to the occasion and make themselves worthy of being there, Jaswal adds.

The first part of the problem is how to get women to be a lot more self confident, a lot more self-assured so they can take up larger roles, says Warrier. The other side of the problem remains that we are still in a social structure where challenges remain around practical issues like maternity, child birth, and relocation with spouse, among others, Warrier adds.

Case in point, the female estimated earned income in India is a mere one-fifth of male income. Women in the country account for only 14 per cent of leadership roles and 30 per cent of professional and technical workers, as per data from the World Economic Forum report.

A typical Indian woman, on an average, spends 300 minutes more than a man every day attending to household chores, says Saundarya Rajesh, Founder-President, Avtar, a diversity and inclusion strategy firm. So, despite getting quality education in fields like science, technology, math, and business management, women professionals face hurdles in their professional journey, off-ramping due to the typical societal norms, causing disparity in workspaces, she adds.

Workforce participation

The work participation rate of women is also dismal. Only one-quarter of women, compared with 82 per cent of men, engage actively in the labour market in India (that is, working or looking for work) — one of the lowest participation rates in the world.

It is not only difficult to on-board women as directors, but, technically, it has become difficult to find women to work, says Jyotsna Uttamchandani, Executive Director, Syska. “Even if companies are trying to balance the gender diversity, are we women actually putting ourselves out there to be selected?” she asks.

To bring more women into the workforce, they need to be mentored and given enough guidance. Companies and organisations have, of late, been putting in place a lot of policies to promote women in the workforce.

But enforcement of those policies and tracking how impactful these are is very important, so we can understand where they are lacking, says Yogita Tulsiani, Director, iXceed Solutions, a global tech recruitment provider.

“The biggest challenge here is people are not ready to give us the opportunity,” says Warrier.

“Sometimes what happens is, I don’t even know of that opportunity because somebody, somewhere has taken the decision to say, “Oh no, I don’t think she would be ready for it, I don’t think she would be eligible for it, I don’t think she would want to do it, so let’s not even ask her.” That is a little bit of an unfortunate challenge and I have seen that in my own career at times,” Warrier adds.

Impact of education

But the literacy rate gap between men and women has been narrowing in the past decade. So, this poor labour force participation numbers of women is despite women’s aggressive enrolment rates in primary (93 per cent), secondary (62.4 per cent) and tertiary (29.1 per cent) education levels (in all the three stages, the share of women attending school is systematically larger than the share of men).

“This could be because our education system is very much textbook-oriented,” says Warrier.

“I can bet my last dollar that the young girls are academically more brilliant, that they score better marks, but in a public forum when you put the two groups together, you will invariably find that the boys will outshine the girls by any stretch of imagination. That is because they inherently have more confidence,” Warrier adds.

Road ahead

To bridge this gap, the education system in India must look beyond textbooks, build confidence in girls so when they start working, they become assertive. Organisations have to recognise that women are different and have a different set of biological and physiological needs. They should also ensure that their recruitment pool is reflective of the gender diversity they want to bring in. The whole notion of diversity and diversity-related orientation, diversity-related training should be given to the men in the organisation, says Warrier.

The more and more you do of it, the more it becomes inherent in the DNA of the organisation. So it is not something you force the organisation into, but by nature the organisation becomes more gender-diverse and sensitive to gender diversity, she adds.

Published on March 06, 2020

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